November 29, 2022

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1899 review: Netflix’s new thriller is mysteries all the way down

4 min read

We’re living in a good time for fans of puzzle box TV shows. Between the Yellowjackets plane crash, Severance’s creepy-ass office, and the big hole in Outer Range, there’s lots to occupy your fan theory group chats. Joining that ever-growing list is 1899 on Netflix — and it’s a doozy. The eight-episode-long series packs a frankly astonishing number of mysteries and twists into its runtime, making it an ideal binge. I’m still not entirely sure what, if anything, it all means, but I had a blast trying to fit the pieces together.

1899 comes to us from Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar, the same creative team behind another Netflix thriller, the German series Dark. 1899 is a multilingual affair. It takes place on a passenger ship during (obviously) the year 1899, and the vessel is carrying a group traveling from Europe to the US. There’s a newlywed French couple (Mathilde Ollivier and Jonas Bloquet), a brooding German captain (Andreas Pietschmann), a Spanish priest and his spoiled brother (José Pimentão and Miguel Bernardeau), a Chinese mother and daughter (Gabby Wong and Isabella Wei), Polish and English coal shovelers, and a lower deck stuffed with poor Danish passengers, among many others. It’s an ensemble affair, but at the center of it all is Maura (Emily Beecham), an English woman who studies medicine but can’t actually practice because she’s a woman.

As is common in these kinds of stories, the characters don’t have much in common at first, aside from the fact that they’re running away from something — and they’re all hiding an important secret. As in the early days of Lost, each episode opens with a flashback to a specific character, giving you a bit of insight into who they are and why they’re on the ship. That would be enough drama, but 1899 isn’t content to be a character study. Things get downright strange pretty quickly.

The mysteries feel par for the course for a story about a bunch of people stuck on a boat. But then the ship comes into contact with the Prometheus, a nearly identical boat that mysteriously sunk four months prior. There are possible ghost sightings and a fog so thick it would make Stephen King proud. There are characters with lost memories, unclear motivations, and eventually, even a mutiny as people die and angers flare. But those early reveals become tame in comparison to the true reality of 1899.

That takes a while, however. It’s really not until the final few minutes that the scale of the show becomes evident. Before that, you’re treated to far too many clues and mysteries to count. Seriously, this is a show you’ll want to pay very close attention to, partly because you won’t want to miss important details but also because the dialogue is in multiple languages. The camera loves to linger over clues, making sure you notice the number of a room cabin or the text in a handwritten letter.

The fun of the show is less in the ultimate reveal and more in following all of the small and strange details that get you to that point. It won’t be long before you’re spotting triangles and pyramids everywhere. It’s really hard to say too much without spoiling things, but I can confirm that, despite being a puzzle box narrative connoisseur, I still found myself frequently unable to figure out where the show was headed, which was refreshing. Just when I thought I had a grasp on things, some bizarre new wrinkle was introduced.

There are a few oddities. The show has a very strange tendency to end each episode with a classic rock song, which feels entirely out of place amidst its otherwise harsh industrial score. And the characters really love to monologue in front of people who have no idea what they’re saying because of the language differences. These monologues aren’t necessarily bad, but it’s hard to believe the other passengers would sit around nodding along when they don’t understand a single word. I should also warn that it’s a pretty grim story, all grey and gloom, with very little humor and one particularly disturbing depiction of sexual violence.

For mystery fans, though, it’s the ideal kind of show: one that, even if you aren’t satisfied by the ending, is a blast to talk about. I’ve been DMing everyone I know, telling them to watch, just so I have people to swap theories with (especially now that Twitter is, let’s say, preoccupied). There are few better distractions than asking your friends why one of the crew members’ face won’t heal or figuring out why there are shimmering bugs on a ghost ship.

1899 is streaming now on Netflix.

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